Two Republican senators from Arizona denounced President Trump yesterday for his constant attacks on the press, but they took very different paths.
John McCain said Trump was sending the wrong signal to repressive regimes around the world.
Jeff Flake compared him to Stalin.
And with that, I believe he seriously undermined his argument.
I happen to believe that the president has every right to criticize the press, especially given the relentlessly negative coverage to which he is subjected. I also happen to believe that he went too far last year in calling the media "the enemy of the American people."
But Flake comes close to suggesting that the media have a monopoly on the truth, when it's well documented that news outlets are sometimes wrong and sometimes biased against Trump. It’s a war with two sides.
Both GOP lawmakers have tangled with the president. Early on in his campaign, Trump took a swipe at McCain's captivity in Hanoi, saying, "I like people who weren’t captured." It was an unprovoked shot at a war hero that many pundits wrongly thought would sink Trump’s campaign.
And Trump has ripped the other Arizona senator as Flake(y) and "unelectable," especially after he published a book highly critical of the president. Flake isn't running for reelection, in part because of Trump and in part because his candidacy looked doomed, so he has made anti-Trump rhetoric a focus of his final months in office.
In his floor speech, which he had touted in advance, Flake said: "It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies."
Excuse me, but Stalin was a mass murderer.
Flake said on "Morning Joe" that he wasn't likening Trump to the Soviet strongman, but of course he was. You don't put the two names in the same paragraph without knowing that is catnip for the media.
Flake went on to accuse Trump of "shameful, repulsive statements" and to argue that "the free press is the despot's enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him 'fake news,' it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press."
Well, the press plays a key role in democracy; that's why there's a First Amendment. But does that mean anyone who criticizes the press is automatically a "figure of suspicion"?
Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah called Flake's comments "bordering on outrageous" and said he had offered words of support for Cuba’s oppressive regime after a recent visit.
McCain writes in a Washington Post op-ed that Trump "has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing 'fake news awards' upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy."
McCain accuses the administration of "inconsistent" and "hypocritical" behavior because while condemning "violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit."
At least McCain is making a high-road argument. But I think he may be stretching the point. Repressive regimes were cracking down on journalists long before Trump got into politics. Yes, the Committee to Protect Journalist says 2017 was one of the most dangerous years for journalists, but they have faced danger around the globe for years.
When you get down to it, President Trump fights the media mainly with his words. That is unlike President Obama, whose administration used secret surveillance against journalists and dragged them into leak investigations, or President Bush, whose administration sent Judith Miller to jail for not revealing a source.
The freedom of senators, journalists and anyone else to rip Trump over his treatment of the press goes to the heart of our First Amendment. But so is the ability of the president to fire back at his journalistic critics.